Book Review: Freedom of Religion & The Secular State

for-blackfordFreedom of Religion & The Secular State, by Russell Blackford.

Publisher: John Wiley and Sons.

Philosopher and self-styled whipping boy, Michael Ruse, once described Russell Blackford as a ‘Junior New Atheist from Australia’. Ruse fancies himself, amongst other things, as a veteran of secular court battles, and an opener of dialogue between believer and non. Good for him.

I’m not sure, however, that Ruse is being wise in dismissing Blackford.


Blackford starts from a tolerant Lockean basis for the separation of church and state, justifying this in a historical context, and comparing it to competing theories, before moving forward to argue how in essence, the Lockean treatment is still applicable to modern disputes.

Anyone familiar with Blackford’s small-l liberal leanings, will not be surprised by his arguing against burqa bans, while those looking for black-and-white posturing will be disappointed; Blackford doesn’t deny there are situations where secular contractual obligations may reasonably require, say an employee, not to wear the burqa in a certain space.

Similarly, against ‘New Atheist’ type, Blackford doesn’t treat the religious establishment’s arguments with categorical derision, notionally agreeing that defensible arguments can be made to indefinitely postpone various secular reforms. This especially where the social costs of reform could exceed the benefits of implementing them.

(This kind of utilitarianism may upset more radical secularists – but at least there’s room for difference in this debate.)

Of course, there are various religious privileges that don’t fall into this category, and it is here, after consideration, that Blackford takes a stronger stance. The idea that Catholics can’t become a head of state, in any modern democracy (or for that matter, any modern soft-theocracy), and ridiculous orthodox notions like these, are given the (admittedly polite) rebuke they rightly deserve. (Malcolm Turnbull, and an Australian Republic, appear in-mind whenever I encounter issues like these in Blackford’s work).

The book is incredibly concise. It doesn’t tarry, taking time to make quips – the necessary technical detail is raised, and in a manner amenable to us laypersons.

(Although I wouldn’t have minded a little needling of Alister McGrath, the respect he’s shown in the section on the history of religious persecution, is more in fitting with the rest of the text.)

Again, against ‘New Atheist’ type, Blackford’s effort isn’t remotely populist, at least in as far as populism is a negative – it’s intellectualism accessible to members of the lumpenproletariat such as yours truly (making it a valuable addition to any public library).

Only the most precious could find the tome objectionable. Blackford for example, doesn’t outright dismiss the possibility of justifiable persecution of religion X, by a hypothetical secular state. Those with persecution complexes will perhaps convince themselves, ‘he means me’, whereas more sensible readers will think more along the lines of ‘sarin-gas-death-cult’.

In being concise, the reader isn’t treated like a dolt – ridiculous interpretations aren’t endlessly qualified against, and this does at some points leave the text open to spurious readings. No doubt at some point, somewhere, a close-reading paranoid, working away in their bunker, will uncover in Blackford’s little tome, the kernel of a ‘New Atheist’ conspiracy to enslave the religious, and crush human flourishing.

Most of us however, should be able to sleep soundly, all the more for not having had our time wasted or our intelligence insulted.


I’m left wondering, because I’ve never seen anything like it, how Michael Ruse has made a contribution to the secular public debate at anything approaching this quality. Correct me if I’m ignorant.

More importantly, the Australian discourse on secularism seems wanting. The history of debate surrounding the issue of federally funded school chaplains, erecting their ministries (under a different name) in public schools, seems impoverished after reading Freedom of Religion & The Secular State.

I’m left wanting yet again better justifications from politicians, and much more challenging counter-arguments from the beneficiaries of the current arrangement. It’s not just that I think people have been wrong, I think the debate has suffered from low expectations – the media has been especially compliant in allowing tripe pass as informed comment.

Freedom of Religion & The Secular State will raise your expectations.

This shortfall in discussions of secularism is framed against a bleak political backdrop; Lindsay Tanner’s Sideshow, and George Megalogenis’ essay, Trivial Pursuit, can meaningfully lament the dumbing-down and privileged insularity of Australian politics of the age, without resorting to populism, all with the general approval of political wonks. For its part of the broader political debate, Blackford’s treatment of the secular state is met with a needing polity.

I doubt that this is significantly less true in most other modern democracies.

I want for people to read this important book.

I want the Greens to read it. I want the major parties to read it. I want Bob Carr to read it it to see if he thinks it could be a worthwhile subject of discussion in the training of Young Labor members. I want to see the moderates in the Young Liberals to read it to see how it could inform their politics.

I want unionists to read it to see how their views on workplace discrimination are influenced.

I want secular Jains, Jews, Muslims, Catholics, Anglicans, Unitarians, Buddhists, and all the other colours of the theist rainbow, to read it.

I want you to read it.

Rating: 5/5

~ Bruce

Note: For those free in Melbourne, this Thursday night, the 12th of April at 6:30pm, Russell Blackford will be appearing at Embiggen Books with Meredith Doig and Graham Oppy to discuss how Australia can move forward as a secular nation. Secularists of all stripes are welcome – theist or non – and I’m planning to be in attendance myself, which means I’d better get back to packing!

A stage in the continued emergence of literary sensibilities…

It’s been a colourful few weeks since the quiet start of Rousing Departures. I’m still graduating back into the swing of things, mind you; getting a feel for all the buttons and switches, all while exploring a few new avenues of literary experience.

A good part of the fun has been Embiggen Books’ recent #bookshopsaredead event on Twitter. Essentially a light literary exercise, the gist is to come up with variations on book titles that reflect the changing state of the industry – what with the electronic book taking sales away from flesh, blood and paper booksellers.

‘Schrödinger’s Bookshop by John Gribbin #bookshopsaredead #bookshopsarealive’ was a pet favourite from my own attempts, and Warren’s ‘Do Booksellers Dream of Electric Books by Philip K. Dick’ was particularly apt. Also existentially angst-inducing was Russell Blackford’s apocalyptic ‘The Bookshop At The End of The Universe by Douglas Adams’.

There were of course, a number of other wonderful contributions, no less enjoyable, only I don’t want to repeat myself and I’m running out of the effulgent language I’d need to describe them all. Call me overly sentimental, but I feel from my end as if the experience has been comparable at least to some of what the ‘pussy is bullshit’ episode from Hitch-22 (the one that had Salman Rushdie producing ‘Octobullshit’) had to offer its participants.

Unfortunately for Embiggen, prior, and giving context to this fun, a sewer pipe burst at their new Melbourne location only a few weeks after opening. With a forced temporary closure, the chosen theme is deeply ironic. I hope the black humor has at least been as good for them as it has for the rest of us!

Embiggen Books, demonstrating considerable morale, have taken the product of this spree of words to artfully produce a number of beautiful posters, displaying them across their storefront during the closure. Producing something looking a little like this… (I’m flattered). Continue reading

Book Review: The Australian Book of Atheism

The Australian Book of Atheism, edited by Warren Bonett.

Publisher: Scribe.

The answer isn’t self-evident; ‘what need is there for a book on atheism with a distinct Australian perspective?’

With this question in mind I made my purchase via the editor’s bookstore, Embiggen Books. Not because I was sure of an answer, but precisely because I wasn’t, the purchase was mandated.

With the various Otherings; the specter of the ‘New Atheist’ monolith; the fearful Easter sermons and the often boilerplate News Limited response, there’s clearly utility in compiling an anthology of varied atheist views, even down under in laid-back Australia.

But why Australian atheists? Being Australian doesn’t make you any more or less of an atheist, and vice versa.


Some way from the introduction, nestled away at the end of the discussion on politics, the editor makes his case proper; the inappropriateness of Australia’s apathy toward religion – particularly where sectarian interests are embrangled with tolerant secular politics – is what demands the expression of particularly Australian, godless perspectives.

But Australians are laid-back about these things, automatically providing us with tolerant, secular pluralism, right? Atheists elsewhere in the world look to Australia with envy!

If The Australian Book of Atheism has anything to teach you about this, the answer is ‘no’: Taking it easy, and taking ‘taking it easy’ for granted as far as religion is concerned, can permit if not precipitate sectarian politics.

Bonnet rightly highlights the absurdities opined by apologists like Prof. Tom Frame and Paul Kelly, who hysterically re-cast criticism made in good faith and fair humour, as catalysts for the erosion of religious rights and an eventual decline into secular moral nihilism, and even the bogey man of social Darwinism. This is truly Glenn Beck territory, yet a book from an atheist perspective pointing out how wrong it is to see this paranoia running mainstream, risks being marginal.

Anyone who pays serious attention to human rights will know that the affinity for outlawing blasphemy usually finds expression in the repressive treatment of minorities, often accompanied by a self-pitying assumption of victim status by the majority. The latter attitude, majoritarian self-pity, which Bonett identifies in Frame and Kelly and justly describes as the ‘endangered species fallacy’, is again, Glenn Beck territory. While the degree of this repression may not be as much in the developed world as elsewhere, particularly not Australia, Bonett’s book still manages to position itself on high moral ground against popular moral panic.

Many examples given elsewhere in the book are less abstract and are all the more confronting because of it.

While you may debate the emphasis, and question some of the facts given by Max Wallace, and similarly the interpretation of points of contention raised by Clarence Wright, early in the reading you’re palpably confronted with historical and social truths that must shake secular apathy to the core. Thanks to Wright, I’ll never look at S116 of the Commonwealth of Australia Constitution the same way again, nor take for granted its (flawed) capacity to grant rights equally. (Nor for that matter, the long grasp of Thomas Aquinas).

Of course, none of these facts occur in a contextual vacuum.

The role of religious apathy, and affirmative irreligion in shaping Australian history (not just the roles in our history that happen to have been filled by the godless) has been overlooked, according to Chrys Stevenson.

This shouldn’t be a surprise. Historically, serious academically-minded Australian religiosity has woven its way through much of the middle class; the section of society that’s penned much of the nation’s history. Rather than being a peccadillo of well-off naturalists as it’s often portrayed, Australian atheism has, according to Stevenson, a rich working-class tradition. Perhaps this could be why it doesn’t see due representation in the narrative.

Identifying more strongly on the grounds of class than religion, I like to think that all else being equal, I have more in common with working class Christians than, middle-class atheists. I find Stevenson’s contribution, and her call to further investigation, an invitation to have this self-identification refined, if not challenged.

Commendably, and giving hope for the future of her project, there doesn’t seem a hint of fudging for the sake of apologia, rather the opposite. The particular ugliness of much of Henry Rusden’s thought (specifically his actual social Darwinism), is brought to the fore as an example of the dark side of Australian atheist history. I wouldn’t want it any other way.


Tanya Levin and Hon. Lee Rhiannon would dominate the autobiographical entries, if not for the powerful way in which the powerful experiences of Dr Collette Livermore are communicated; the story of someone coming to terms with life after leaving the faith, and Mother Teresa’s order. No disrespect to Robyn Williams, David Horton or the always entertaining Tim Minchin (all well worth a read), but the competition in the personal accounts is just that good.

Indeed, the women find almost equal representation in this book, which is an improvement over many, many texts, and they certainly hold their own in the quality of their writing and argument; an appreciation of which is really mandated of the reader.

Education gets a good looking-over, with Hugh Wilson of the Australian Secular Lobby exposing the state of affairs in Queensland’s not-at-all-secular public education system. Moving along, Prof. Graham Oppy’s take on ‘Evolution vs Creationism’ in Australian Schools is a bit heavy on respect for Ian Plimer for my tastes, although yes, Plimer could amongst other things be called the ‘most spectacular opponent of creationism in Australia’ [emphasis mine].

This criticism not withstanding, Oppy’s contribution is illuminating even if you’re already relatively well-informed on the various attempts to squeeze creationism into Australian schools. Furthermore, Prof. Oppy’s analysis demonstrates true erudition on the politics of the matter as concerning the Australian Curriculum Assessment and Reporting Authority (ACARA), which is refreshing and much-needed given some of the recent moral panic surrounding the authority.

Kylie Sturgess writes of her experience as an atheist employee of a religious school; the dodging of awkward, tangential points because you’ve got other things you should be focusing on; the apathy about difference that kicks in when you just need a break; the anxiety that perhaps differences if unexamined will get in the way of what you’re supposed to be doing, and the hope that the force behind the lack of conflict will effectively put an end to the issue of difference.

To me, this is familiar territory because it also describes experiences I’ve had as an atheist volunteer in religious not-for-profit organisations. Yet the author expresses these difficult concerns with such clarity, I suspect most readers won’t need similar experiences to take something away her contribution.

Australian pluralism does rely largely on the logic of the law, but reform, better interpretation and application, all require insights into political realities as well. The kinds of experiences Sturgess illustrates are I think a necessary part of any serious consideration, both when generalised and in specific settings such as education. Often the perspectives of ‘the Other on the inside’ are overlooked by simple way of organisational reality, which makes a book that publishes them all the more important.


Topics progress to matters social, political and philosophical, which the general reader may find more familiar.

Dr Leslie Cannold is as anyone familiar with her writing would expect, educational on the matter of abortion in Australia, and the role of religion in shaping discussion of the topic and realisation of its politics.

Dr Philip Nitschke’s ‘Atheism and Euthanasia’ is a must read for anyone seriously supporting the right to die peacefully, Australian or not, atheist or not.

Rosslyn Ives continues the contemplation of living and dying, in a way that will be familiar to anyone who’s spent any significant amount of time looking after the disabled (Ives is a carer, in addition to being the President of the Council of Australian Humanist Societies). Her treatment of the philosophy of Peter Singer is informed and accurate, and given the context of the disabled (Ives is a carer), this is especially important; Singer’s views as they pertain to care for the disabled in particular have been routinely misrepresented by both religious and allied reactionaries.

The detail of Ives’ perspective fleshes out humane concerns for quality of life shared by many good Australians, but in ways seemingly not apt to reduction by pundits to cheap allusion. I think in this respect Ives may perform better as a spokesperson for quality of life than even Singer or Nitschke.

Dr Russell Blackford, in ‘Atheists for Free Speech’, convincingly and with an unflinchingly rational approach, deals with freedom of expression in Australia as it pertains to religious matters. This is undertaken with a welcome degree of sobriety that seems all-too-often absent from such public discussions; firm but fair, and sane.

Too often these matters are caught between hyperbolic, knee-jerk, credulous accusations of hate crime on one side, while on the other, syphilitic rhetoric is imported from foreign culture wars to frame the Australian situation as being as dire as it is in a supposedly sub-caliphate Europe. You’ll get none of this paranoia from Dr Blackford.


If there’s anything about the book that I can seriously object to, it’s that the implications of its perspective aren’t drawn out in sufficient detail in matters concerning Aboriginal Australia. An area of concern so substantial that any book with a broad Australian focus will be at odds to explain an absence of consideration.

According to stated and implied principles, what happens to land rights if they are challenged on the grounds of scepticism to Aboriginal religion? Does the rejection of Terra nullius as a legal fiction override this, with at least the establishment of a treaty required to grant standing to the sceptic or any other claimants?

Should, and how would, a separation between church and state coincide with a divide between Commonwealth and native title?

How would these matters have panned out in cases such as the Hindmarsh Island bridge dispute if said principles were applied?

What would a liberal, secular, Enlightenment-based treaty look like from an atheistic perspective?

According to principle, what is to be said about Christian imperialism and Enlightenment free-thought as they pertain historically to the treatment of Aboriginal Australians?

How does a non-indigenous atheist go about putting their secular hand forward in the spirit of reconciliation, with those who aren’t necessarily in all instances secular? What does a non-indigenous atheist do when such motions aren’t welcomed by the other party?

And what do Aboriginal atheists have to say about any of this (and more)?

The Australian Book of Atheism is a first-run of a new perspective, and it can be forgiven a lot for this reason. But even when not damning (I don’t think in this case that it is), recognition of the relative omission of the way this perspective views black politics warrants mention for the sake of future projects in the same vein.


The tone of the book is laid-back in a way one would expect of authors from a nation laid-back about religion, but the arguments and the concerns are anything but. The mode then is calm and seriously considered – an abundance of critique leveled with a quiet confidence that will have certain readers clutching at pearls. I suspect though, that its reception by the rest of us will be sober, as is fitting.

I’m left leaving Bonett’s book with a sense of its Australian qualities, but also with the realisation that it’s a first dip of the toes into new water. It gives a good kick in the complacency; a call for Australians with tolerant, secular values to wake and stop blithely assuming they know their country so well as to be so unconcerned.

It’s an excellent if not un-flawed starting point for a new discussion of an aspect of Australian identity and politics; a return to, and a clarification of, past issues unresolved that will be familiar to jaded political wonks and cultural critics alike. The Australian Book of Atheism justifies its perspective and its reason-to-be, all while heralding further debate.

I hope to see more books published along these lines.

Rating: 4/5

~ Bruce

(Photo Source: Warren Bonett).